In ‘‘The Fence,’’ Rangkuti explores how artificial boundaries affect humans. In this simply written story, the author poses important and thought-provoking questions about fences— artificial boundaries built with the purpose of protecting something. Rangkuti questions whether a fence is truly protective or offers a false sense of security. He suggests that the principles of faith, brotherhood and kindness are more protective than a fence and that fences—which represent the opposite of brotherhood—can cause the very harm that they are designed to prevent.
In this story, two competing views of human nature are presented, one fearful and pinched, the other generous and based on a spiritual understanding of life. Each view has implications regarding how people should treat one another and from where true security and peace in life may come. Mother argues for what might be seen as the common sense view that seems to rely on logic. This point of view says, We have something of value—a house—so let us protect it and keep outsiders away. This is, perhaps, a natural human instinct, to seek privacy and security. Mother is annoyed at the people who come into her yard, whether they are children or vagrants. It is all a nuisance to her, a violation of her privacy and an invasion of her peace and quiet. Mother is a person who takes a pessimistic view of human nature. She always fears the worst and therefore takes the most ungenerous attitudes. She thinks that if she shows the vagrants any tolerance, or gives them anything, they will just want more. She is motivated by fear, the need to defend what she regards as her own, and a heart that is closed to the needs of others beyond her immediate family.
Father does not see things that way at all. He is a man of generous, open-hearted instincts, who seems to live with a natural understanding of the brotherhood of man. He does not insist on protecting what he owns from others. He is a religious man, and he takes seriously the injunction found in all religions to give alms, to show generosity to those who have nothing, and to help the sick. He offers the stricken old man coffee, even though it is the last the family has (or at least, his wife tells him it is the last, but she is not being entirely truthful). Father is a perfect example of a man who will give the last of what he has to help those in need. He will do it gladly, without even thinking about it. He does not question the old man’s motive. He just gives where it is needed.
Father also makes a telling point in his discussion with his wife about whether they should build a fence around their house. He realizes that no fence can completely divide people off from one another: ‘‘[S]ometimes you have to go out through the fence, which means it will have lost its purpose.’’ He means that people cannot always retain a rigid separation between themselves and others. People will mingle, and he implies that everyone has to learn how to get along with everyone else.
Father’s views stem directly from his religious faith. He is a man who, if surrounded by enemies, would likely rely not on his own strength or courage to survive but on his faith that all life comes from God, that God gives and God takes away, and the best security in life is to do God’s will. Father would probably argue that because God, in all religious traditions, is love, if His commandments are respected, and people have faith in His promises, no man has anything to fear. Faith is all the security a person needs, and faith envelopes a person like an invisible protective cloak that is quite different from, and superior to, a physical fence. A fence is simply a sign of man’s fear, of his refusal to trust, his willingness to focus on the bad side of human nature. Although Father is a Muslim, the religious view he espouses might be found amongst people of almost any religious faith.
Father’s flaw, if it might be put facetiously, is that he listens to his wife and allows the fence to be built. Of course, the fence works well enough for a while. It appears that it has accomplished everything Mother hoped for. No one disturbs their peace. Their home is a model of tranquility. But the fence does not survive its first real test, when the rainy season returns and people start needing shelter again. Someone in the family—it is not stated which one, although Father blames his wife—forgets to lock the gate. Perhaps the failure to lock the gate suggests the inevitability of human error. People always make mistakes, the point being that one cannot rely on one’s own efforts to protect oneself. Sooner or later something will go wrong.
As the climax of the story unfolds, a profound point is made. Human nature is not a fixed thing. Individual people may not be intrinsically good or bad. They take at least part of their nature from how others regard them and how others treat them. The example is the old man. When he first comes to the house he is no more than a sick old man seeking shelter. But on his return, when the house is protected by a fence, he is aggressive and threatening, and his companions are thieves. His nature has been altered by the fear and distrust emanating from the house. The building of the fence was more than just a physical act; it sent out subtle messages that changed the way others thought and behaved.
This point is conveyed by the fact that the scene in which the vagrants return is almost an exact copy of the first scene in which they appeared. The same sequence of events and the same words are used. There is a knocking at the door; Mother says not to let them in, but Father says to do so; on both occasions the men identify themselves, when asked who they are, as ‘‘us.’’ The author wants to show that nothing has changed except an attitude and a perception. A certain attitude, expressive of a set of underlying beliefs, has been allowed to triumph in the home of the Narrator, and that attitude has poisoned the people against them. The mild old man who seemed to be on the verge of death has been transformed into a criminal who is prepared to do whatever it takes in order to get what he wants. The fence, instead of becoming a means of security, has become a kind of lightning rod, attracting the very thing it is designed to keep out.
Although set in an unfamiliar place and culture, ‘‘The Fence’’ nonetheless has some resonance for Western readers because its theme is a universal one. Anyone familiar with Western literature will think immediately of Robert Frost’s poem ‘‘Mending Wall,’’ in which Frost explores similar questions as Rangkuti does in ‘‘The Fence.’’ The poem revolves around a wall that is built between neighbors that must be mended each spring. One neighbor, the narrator of the poem, sees no need to continue maintaining the wall. Like Father in ‘‘The Fence,’’ he questions the need for a boundary on his property. Like Father, he is not sure what he and his neighbor are each protecting, and he worries that keeping others out may not be the right thing to do. He muses: Before I built a wall, I’d ask to know What I was walling in or walling out, And to whom I was like to give offence.
When Father in ‘‘The Fence’’ asks these same questions, Mother’s answers seem simple. She says the fence is protecting valuables that could one day be inside the house. It is keeping out people who may want to take the valuables. But Mother cannot point to anything that actually needs protecting. Similarly, the neighbor in Frost’s poem does not reveal there is anything to protect. Instead, he repeats the same line twice: ‘‘Good fences make good neighbors,’’ he says. Frost’s narrator, like Father, keeps wondering why this should be so. When he gets no answer, he concludes that his neighbor ‘‘moves in darkness.’’ This is the opposite of Father’s ‘‘enlightened’’ view of the world that includes kindness and brotherliness.
Both Father and Frost’s narrator address what it feels like to be on the outside of a fence. They agree that when one is on the outside of the fence, one wants what is on the other side. This recalls yet another literary wall from the 1960 musical play ‘‘The Fantasticks’’ written by Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt in which a wall separates two families. A girl and a boy who live on opposite sides of the wall both want what lies beyond the wall because their fathers have forbidden it. In this case, the boy and girl want to get to know each other. Like Rangkuti’s vagrants, they manage to get through the barrier and end up falling in love. If the barrier never existed, they may have never noticed each other at all, similar to how the vagrants had no thoughts about stealing from the family before the fence existed.
Rangkuti’s story extends beyond the literary world. History has seen many walls erected between countries and communities. A famous example is the Berlin Wall, which was erected by the Communist East German government in East Berlin in 1961. It was designed to stop poor East Germans from moving to prosperous West Germany. But East Berliners, like the vagrants and the couple in ‘‘The Fantasticks,’’ wanted what lay on the other side of the wall. Of the approximately ten thousand East Berliners who tried to escape, about five thousand were successful. They came up with creative ways to get past the barrier, such as floating over the wall in a hot air balloon and digging tunnels so they could crawl under the wall. Even though the wall was rebuilt three times, each time bigger and more secure, they would not be deterred. Guards and dogs watched over the barrier and people caught trying to cross it were shot on sight. Finally, in November 1989, the Berlin Wall was taken down, to much anticipation and celebration.
Another fence has been the subject of debate—the one at the border between Mexico and the United States. The U.S. government argues that the fence is needed to keep illegal immigrants from crossing the border and taking American jobs and resources, while others argue the fence is an impractical and expensive substitute for proper immigration policy. Lessons from Rangkuti’s story can be used to examine this debate. For example, Rangkuti might ask whether a wall between Mexico and the United States would truly be protective, or whether it would serve to further entice people to try to cross it. Moreover, he might think the principles of faith, brotherhood, and kindness should be considered in attempts to resolve the matter. In his simply told story, Rangkuti manages to provoke thought about complex current and historical issues like this one.
Esther Mizrachi Moritz, Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 31, Hamsad Rangkuti, Published by Gale Group, 2010